GRANT BALL writes that Peter de Villiers’ refusal to hand Butch James a decent amount of game-time in his preferred position defeated the point of picking him.
James was ruled out of the Boks’ final Tri-Nations fixture with a shoulder injury, but it’s not clear how long he’ll be out for. That concludes an international season where there was little planning for the Bath flyhalf, who started his only Test of the year at inside centre and was used sparingly at No 10.
De Villiers may not have been sure of how to use him effectively off the bench – also a trend with other players throughout the De Villiers tenure – but some senior players wanted him in the squad, with reports suggesting they pushed for James to start ahead of Morne Steyn at Loftus.
That was all on the back of a season where he was in the Bok 22 in seven Tests, but started just one – in his unfavoured position of inside centre. He played a total of 138 minutes out of a possible 560, 52 of which were at No 12 against Italy in Witbank. He played just 49 minutes out of a possible 400 in the Tri-Nations in three cameos off the bench, while he wasn’t used off the wood in Wellington and at Soccer City.
These figures could be understandable if Steyn was on similar match-winning form as last year, but De Villiers didn’t have the courage or conviction to make any brave calls regarding James and Steyn. If James was so highly valued to be one of just a few overseas-based Boks in the squad, why not give him a chance to start in a Tri-Nations Test? That would have provided some evidence to finding out whether James still has it in him to start in a World Cup fixture in a year.
With the Tri-Nations title lost by the time the Boks returned home, the opportunity was there to experiment and rest over-played individuals, one of whom is Steyn. That never occurred and De Villiers said James understood the situation, but what else was the player supposed to say. Earlier in the international window during the Italian series, De Villiers already said Steyn needed a rest, but then continued to play him.
When James did get a chance to play at flyhalf, the Boks immediately looked more dangerous with ball in hand (think of the eight minutes he and Jean de Villiers formed the 10-12 combination in Auckland). He also showed his defensive ability in the closing stages at Loftus, and while he’s a vastly different alternative to Steyn, he can add value to a Bok squad.
As is the case with Frans Steyn – but for different reasons – there hasn’t been a 2010 plan with James, and therefore his potential hasn’t been maximised.
The question is what does the future hold for James? De Villiers has no grounds, barring injury, not to select him for the Grand Slam tour as he hasn’t done anything wrong, and neither has he had sufficient time to excel.
De Villiers said after the Loftus win that Steyn had been grossly over-played already this year. Selecting him for the year-end tour would be counter-productive, especially when De Villiers has players such as James and Pat Lambie at his disposal.
Whether James is good enough – and I believe he is – to be in the national squad should have been answered by now. But with De Villiers not granting him decent opportunities, the topic is still up for debate.